Thursday, 6 January 2011

Consumerism and Craft


con•sum•er•ism
–noun

-the fact or practice of an increasing consumption of goods
-the concept that an ever-expanding consumption of goods is advantageous to the economy.

Since taking the Wardrobe Refashion pledge a few years ago (paradoxically whilst working for a clothing company which produced low quality, virtually disposable fashion), the consumption of cheap readily available goods that nobody particularly needs is something that I’ve found increasingly grating. I understand that many people derive a lot of pleasure from buying things like clothes and shoes, god knows I did my fair share of excessive non-essential consuming in my teens and early twenties. But nowadays, in this media age when news travels fast from every corner of the globe, almost everyone in the developed world has some level of awareness that the production, transportation and discarding of these endlessly available cheap goods are damaging the planet AND have questionable human rights footprints.

At this point, however I’d like to say that I’m not ragging on trading as a concept. Of course it’s partly what makes us human, rather than just some type of funny-looking apes. I don’t think there is anything innately wrong with exchanging things for something else, be that other goods, services or currency. Indeed, we are all ‘consumers’ in the purist sense of the word: we all consume food and drink for example. We all require things that make it possible and more pleasurable to conduct our day to day lives. It’s not consumption as such that’s a problem, but the growing, mindless, snatching then discarding-type consumerism of products manufactured at the expense of the planet that seems to be a defining element of 21st Century Western culture. There is also the questionable morality of increasing the consumption of non-necessities (often with a nauseating sense of entitlement), particularly whilst so many of the world’s inhabitants hardly have the essentials for a healthy existence. It is these characteristics of modern consumption that I, and many others, are referring to when using the term ‘consumerism’.

This is a topic that I’ve touched upon to varying degrees during the short life of this blog, but it’s something I’m finding increasingly important to talk, listen, read and write about. Consumerism, sustainability, DIY, craft and style are of course very much interlinked, my main current preoccupation is thinking about what we can do as culture and as individuals to affect a positive change. So if it’s a subject you feel strongly about, please share your views, via a comment, a blog post, a conversation with a friend, whatever. And if it’s not something you feel strongly about, you might want to delete me from your RSS feed. Just giving you a heads up coz these are issues I'm going to be returning to from time to time.

Fear not, I’m still all about rocking smokin’ handmade garments and talking the sewing chit chat. In fact I feel that sewing and DIY have a very important role to play in this sorting out this whole mess. And looking and feeling good in homemade garments is a pretty powerful political act, in my book. Discuss....

32 comments:

Uta said...

While this isn't what my blog is about (though I may do a post if the mood strikes), I care about this topic very much, and really appreciate your thoughts and posts on it. For me, what's central to this isn't the economy or nature, it's equality. Is it fair that one hour of my labour buys me tens of hours of labour (in the form of cheap clothing or whatever) from someone else, just because they live on another continent? It isn't. Doing manual labour (sewing) makes me appreciate that.

Reneebies said...

Right on! Can't wait to read more.

Amy said...

I felt the need to write a comment in support of this post although I generally find when it comes to talking about these issues I find myself increasingly tongue tied and confused!

I guess the more you find out about something, the more complex you realise the problem is and the harder I find to take a stand or form an opinion or support one arguement over another, it's all so inter-related.

I'll be looking forward to hearing what you have to say though :-)

Loren said...

I've been feeling the same way recently that there is just TO MUCH focus on buying new things, especially in my own life. For my new years resolution I decided to give up 'new things'. I'm going to try to go the entire year 2011 without buying anything that has come directly from the manufacturer to me. No new books toys, clothes, or in general non-consumable items.
It's already been surprisingly difficult. (I started a blog about it too... so we'll see how that goes.)

Trixie Rocket said...

I spent last year giving up all clothes from unethical high street shops (there were actually a few nice surprises - Primark and H&M not as bad as I thought on the labour front!) and I actually really enjoyed it. Although I realise that very little of the fabric and yarn I use has probably been ethically produced, at least I've cut out the sweatshop stage, and I feel like I've actually developed my own style a lot more than before. In fact, even though my year's up I still don't see myself shopping at Topshop, for instance. I really like Loren's idea, though I'm not sure I have the willpower!

Ryan said...

I want to limit my "stuff" and I live with too much of it surrounding me. But it's a constant battle. There are the things I need, the things I want, and the things I just end up with. I can get myself the things that are, "ooh, that's cool" but are aren't necessary, but make me happy if only for the fleeting moment of the purchase. But should I? I tell myself "no" sometimes, but sometimes it's just so easy to get those two bowls because they're only .49 at the thrift store.

I've been trying to be more mindful with what I do, what I eat, and what I buy. I think it's an ongoing process though. Just this morning I put on a new dress for the first time and although it fits (mostly) and it was a good price for a well constructed garment, I'm finding it maybe doesn't work that well for my life. It's short and I feel just a little uncomfortable picking something up, sitting down in my chair. Ultimately, I probably shouldn't have purchased the dress at all. Because I would be happier (in the long run) if I had 10 dresses that fit well and I can wear a lot, than 50 dresses that I wear once or very rarely.

Knowing you have a problem is the first step...

Felicity said...

Good on you, Zoe! This is a conversation we crafters need to have. I've been feeling a bit queasy lately about the consumerism inherent in the sewing 'business'... e.g. thousands of new must-have fabrics and gadgets. The original concept of quilting, for instance, was to save little scraps of fabric and minimise waste - not to go to a mega quilting store and buy 100s of dollars worth of non-sustainable cotton. Having said that, making stuff is definitely better than buying new stuff. But it's good to think about how much 'stuff' we need... looking forward to continuing to follow your most interesting blog! xxx

Clare said...

I don't know if you saw these two blog posts (I linked to one of them a few months ago), but they, (actually it was really the comment threads), really blew me away. Not only for the discussion of consumerism and the role of industrial capitalism, but also in the large range of perspectives, mostly from a feminist point of view. Real food for thought

http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2010/07/14/retail-its-complicated/

http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2010/07/16/more-on-fast-fashion/

I tend to feel that when I engage with fashion it's never really out of necessity, and aside from thrifting and recycling (and getting most of my fabric from the remnants bin, though what possible contribution that makes I can't tell!), there's a limit to how much I can personally do to be sustainable while at the same time having two main hobbies (knitting and sewing) which are entirely based around purchasing *stuff* to turn into more *stuff*. Actively seeking out ethical companies (Tilly did a post about organic and ethical fabrics a while back, for example) and most importantly, *talking* about these issues are the main ways that I think we can try to lessen our impact. As well as just considering what we actually need (a lot of bloggers seem to have 'sew fewer things and take longer over them' as a resolution this year, which sort of echoes that!)

It's interesting what Uta says about hours of labour; I did a calculation earlier this year whereby I counted up the hours of work I'd put into a number of handmade garments and converted them into an average living wage for, I think Bangladesh (I can't remember where I got the data from, but it was a pretty small hourly amount). Anyway, when it came to adding it up, it showed that to pay someone a decent wage would add like £4 or something to the cost of one dress. Which in the grand scheme of things is not much at all, and goes to show the extent to which profit margins drive the inequality in our world. I'd be really interested to hear your perspective on this from within TRAID actually, since they engage so actively in these issues.
Crikey, long comment! Thanks for your comment the other day; I look forward to seeing what you get up to this year too!

Clare said...

hmm, those URLs seem wonky in my giganta-comment. i'll try again

http://www.feministe.us
/blog/archives/2010/07/14/retail-its-complicated/

http://www.feministe.us
/blog/archives/2010/07/16/more-on-fast-fashion/

christina said...

I really like that you talk about topics motivating you, too. I myself like to go through my life with a minimal disturbance because of me. It's not the reason why I sew and knit (this is because I love creating things and I'm a control freak), but if I didn't I would find other ways to get clothed than going into the next highstreet shop. I'd guess both (hand)work and time are very much appreciated by fellow crafters because we know what it takes to make a garment. We know the value.

Steph said...

Yes! A hundred times yes! I wrote a little post about this just the other day. My husband is an ecologist, we both come from greenie families and we're passionate about human rights and learning to live sustainably. I use a lot of "green" materials in my sewing like hemp and organic cotton and inheritance fabrics, but I'm forcing myself to face up to the fact that the key to sustainability is to severely reduce consumption. I'm adding you to my reader, I only used to skip in and out sometimes but now I'm excited to help build a dialogue on reducing consumption.

couturearts said...

The title of your post is "Consumerism and Craft", but the post is only about the consumerism. Felicity and Clare point out that crafting can be a consumer activity, and I agree with them. Often, I feel like my crafting is just an excuse to buy stuff. Even if I am thrifting and re-fashioning, the only reason that so many great thrifted things are available is because there is so much excess stuff in the first world, gained by exploiting the third.

I have no solutions to offer, alas.

Bhoomika said...

Yay! I really like the fact that you are taking your blog farther into the political. I started sewing because I wanted to be sustainable, but I keep running into consumerist tendancies anyway...(as the size of my stash shows)
It helps me in my own quest to keep being reminded of my original purpose. Rock on.

biggreenfeet said...

You know, I too have been thinking about these kinds of things. I don't tend to concentrate quite as much on the fast-fashion side of things as I am a plus-sized person, and most "fast fashion" for we the plus sized is rather ugly and/or not well made. Because that's not really the point i'm trying to make here, I will simply say fast plus-sized fashion exists, but we don't have as much a selection as straight sizes, so my problem with consumerism is more on the "stuff" side of things.

My big point of view kind of coincides with the Story of stuff (storyofstuff.org. We're making all of this "stuff" and destroying the environment and livelihoods of others. It really bothers me to see so many useless cheap things for sale that I know are bound for the trash. Think about your local dollar store, dollar bins, etc. I don't feel enough gets done when it comes to these things. We know plastic bags are really terrible for the environment, etc, yet instead of outlawing them completely, grocery stores "encourage" people to bring their reusable bags. I am sure I am not the only one to forget mine on a regular basis, and then you're going to have people that frankly don't give a shit no matter what.

Then you have the fact that things like aluminum are a huge use of energy etc to make and it's much easier to just recycle it, but there are no good recycling programs in the US. I live in an apartment, and have to throw all of my recycling away. There is just no good way to handle it. Recycling companies don't want to incur the extra expense.

This kind of turned in to more of a rant than anything, and for that I apologize, but to get my point across let me just say this: It is ridiculous to think we're not going to run out of materials (metals, petrol products, etc), so why do we treat them like there is an infinite amount of them? And why do we waste them on stupid objects and products that serve absolutely no real purpose (troll dolls, anyone?).

I love that you started this conversation, and I hope to hear more. Thanks for posting, I really love reading your blog.

Daruma-san said...

This topic is near and dear to my heart! Thank you for bringing it up and I love the care and consideration that other readers have put into their comments. Inspiring!

Sometimes I feel like there's a mad rush to create more, to have more to show, especially online. 2010 was my first year sewing for myself, and this year I want to take a deep breath and create things that last while taking my sweet time.

As for materials... I try really hard to find fabric from the thrift store and use new materials sparingly! It's very, very tough for me not to purchase and hoard beautiful fabric. With posts like yours, however, I'm looking forward to more people being aware of this issue in crafting - and perhaps seeing more inspirational projects that use pre-existing resources!

Brooke said...

I've wrestled with this myself. I know many sewists who haunt vintage stores to remake existing clothes, while I head for fabric stores so that I know who's making my clothes.

But I don't know who's making my fabrics. Do you have any insight into human rights violations at fabric manufacturers? I would like to do the right thing. Maybe that means I need a couple sheep and a loom.

Speaking of which, there's an interesting TED talk on doing the right thing at TED.com. Might be worth checking out.

Anyway, thanks for bringing this up. I'm interested in hearing your views on this. Can a sewist create clothes from new fabric and still do right by the planet (let alone her sisters in third-world countries)?

Brooke said...

@BigGreenFeet: Where do you live? You wrote:

"There are no good recycling programs in the US."
I have to argue with you there - some places in the US have exemplary recycling programs, like Seattle, where I live. In fact, the city takes it so seriously that we're fined if we throw out recyclables in the trash bins.

Happily, the city has made it very, very easy to recycle, and so have many other cities along the West Coast.

Carolyn said...

I feel very strongly about this too, which is why I joined wardrobe refashion and now make all my own clothes. But I don't make shoes, bags or underwear. These I buy after checking the label carefully to make sure they are made in countries with fair employment conditions for their workers, such as my own country, which I support as my highest priority.
I once joined in a interesting forum where I held firm on my above beliefs about boycotting products from countries where unfair working conditions were practised, and others pointed out how some smaller disadvantaged countries, while, yes, are not looking after their workers, still rely heavily on the industries they are exporting to first world countries, and with out these industries the workers are even worse off. Horror stories about prostitution and selling off of children followed, which made me question my own stance. So I don't know what is the right answer. I wish a solution could be found to the problem.
There's only so much you can do. I feel by making as much as I can I am doing my bit, and try not to beat myself up over what I can't achieve.

Veronica Darling... said...

I've been meaning to read your post all day, usually I skim blogs, but as soon as I saw where you were headed, I was like a lot of these comments "A thousand times yes, I'll save that one for when I can read every word!"...

You know how much we agree on these things, and people have already said very similar things above, but it's important to me, and my path through the world, so I'm pleased to see all these kind of discussions on the internetz! It's part of the reason why I ventured here in the first place, to find other people who are repurposing their stuff, and limiting the stuff they get.

I've mentioned it before (somewhere online, maybe to you) but this quote of yours reminded me: that people have "often with a nauseating sense of entitlement" about getting stuff... they deserve this stuff... but it's the 'Affluenza' book that triggered my habits (about 8 years ago now I think) after reading it.

I just googled and the term even has it's own wiki these days!

Bring it on babes! More chit chat for sure!

Minnado said...

A thought provoking post Zoe. We have discussed consumerism before but I would be interested to keep readin more onthe subject and am plannignposts about it. For me, I have a struggle untangling the threads of consumerism in my life, I am concerned as a parent about marketing and consumerism and how they are affecting children. Not buying new clothes has become the norm for me now but I am interested in examining my relationship with objects and consumption. There seems such an emphasis in our society on material consumption equals happiness or love. For example when I suggested to people that they do not buy my kids C-mas presents they were quite shocked. I also am trying not let craft consumption overwhelm me - there is a temtation to buy new fabrics, new patterns etc. I am trying this year to make do with the patterns and books I already have and see how far I can get in my sewing with them. Hopefully this will push me to try my own pattern making. It is hard to buy ethically sourced sewing fabric, especially on a budget,I would be interested to see how other sewers manage it.

biggreenfeet said...

@Brooke

I live in Florida, and our programs aren't great. I worked at a summer camp where they were unable to recycle because the company told them it would cost them (the recycling company) too much to come out and pick it up. I don't think I have ever seen an apartment complex here that has a recycling service either. We are also suburban, and very spaced out with not-so-great public transit. On top of all that, I have read and heard a lot of places that the recycling doesn't always do much more than more the trash around.

Have you watched the story of bottled water? Lennon talks about how we ship bottle to India, they are then made into crap plastic that is lower grade and meant to be tossed.

And about fabric production: I agree, it would be really great to see more transparency when it comes to fabric production. I remember being upset by the fact that bamboo was touted as being so environmentally friendly and then finding out that Bamboo Rayon is absolutely NOT, and only certain processes with bamboo fibers are.

Cecili said...

I can only agree with you on this topic, you've expressed exactly what's been on my mind lately about consuming excesses. Since I started sewing "seriously" I have practically stopped buying rtw garments except for a pair of jeans -my handmade phobia- , bras and a holiday souvenir tee-shirt or two! Sewing doesn't make me save money since yards of fabric often cost more than finished clothes and that made me see the absurdity of consumerism and the value of owning something in which you have put thought and effort. This way of thinking has spread to other fields in my life and I'm thankful I was able to open my eyes and stop spending without thinking and condoning a sick system. Also, I think exploiting and refashioning already existing items is a good way of improving things.

Daruma-san said...

I just saw "The Story of Stuff" video and immediately thought of this post. For those who haven't seen it: http://www.storyofstuff.com/ Riveting.

I agree with everyone who's mentioned that the comments on this post are amazing and thought-provoking!

rhiannon said...

I completly agree, and very timely, I mentioned Self Stiched September to a blog post as part of a series I'm doing at yphr.org.uk which is looking at the link between our wardrobes and human rights, or lack of them.

Camelia Crinoline said...

I just watched Walmart: the high cost of low price and No Logo so this is very timely. While I do buy mainly second hand clothes and try to buy second hand fabric and notions for sewing I know that this is not the answer to the wider problem of consumption and all the ecological and social issues surronding it. The only reason I can buy almost exclusively second hand is because other people throw away so much that is usable. I think craft/DIY is important because when you spend hours making something you are more likely to wear it for years rather than throwing it away after a season. I am, however, well aware that there are the same problems of consumption, sustainability and human rights when buying craft materials. It was interesting to read the articles that Clare linked to because for me my beliefs about consumerism intersect with my feminist beliefs. The majority (I think I heard around 80%) of those working in sweatshops are young women because it is thought that they are easier to control and less likely to protest the appalling working conditions.
I really don't know what the solution to all this is, or if there is even one.

Catherine said...

I'm a convert to reducing waste, secondhand shopping, refashioning, sewing, trying to be content with what I have, etc, especially since having my little boy 3 years ago (even though the above is originally how I was brought up). I used to work in fashion retail, but am now a stay at home mum and the sudden loss of a salary, combined with an increased awareness of the world about which I am teaching my son has changed my outlook. I am still surprised that people can be so squeamish about secondhand shopping, yet not be squeamish about the chemical processes involved in making stuff, the conditions in which it was assembled, the way in which is was packaged, transported and stored, or what happens after it is binned because it broke and you didn't know how to repair it. I am ashamed of the stuff I have thrown away over the years for instance because I didn't know how to sew and it was easier to just replace the garment. I am now learning to sew and this won't happen again. However, I am nowhere near perfect and have a long way to go, like most people, but am taking baby steps. Eg lots of our family's Christmas presents this year were secondhand or vintage. I'll be interested to hear more of your views as whenever I think of stuff like this it can blow my mind as it invariably for me raises more questions than it answers! I've maybe been spending rather too much time in charity shops though as my son requested to go to our local branch as his birthday outing!

dawn s said...

What will you all say ten years from now when Global Warming is finally proven as the fraudulent power grab that is? Keep drinking the Kool Aid.

Patrick said...

@ Dawn S

I think we'd all breathe a huge sigh of relief Dawn, and yet still be proud that we'd spent ten years struggling for greater social equality worldwide.

We're all sick of living off the backs of other people's misery, and even if the climate doesn't change that doesn't make the landfills dissapear or the air quality better or the trash islands vanish from the oceans.

Here's a few bits of reading if you'd be kind enough to consider the evidence...

http://www.bis.gov.uk/go-science/climatescience

http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2009/02/global-warming-denial.html

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/05/start-here/

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/06/4_stages_denial.php

shanna said...

Actually, when i first read a post of yours on consumerism a while ago, that's when some things came together. I was starting to get an uncomfortable feeling whenever i was buying something that was way too cheap to have been made honest and way too cheap to be of any quality. I just had a baby and was thinking about the kids that needed to work in factories to produce underpriced, low-quality garments that would fall apart in no time, so they would be there forever, producing underpriced and low-quality item after item...Bit dramatized phaps, but still, I was getting an dirty feeling out of bying these products (not just clothing imo).

So, in short, yes I'd like to read more about , in combination with sewey stuff :)

EddieDuckling said...

I will definitely be tuning in to more of this in 2011.
Oh BTW how are you on the refashionista co-operative idea I was telling you about last year.

Eddie

Dylana Suarez said...

This is such a great post! I feel the same way you do about cheap, disposable clothing, and its effect on the environment, but I have been prone to fall into its trap from time to time. But I always try hard to steer clear of these places that put quantity over quality. This is why I love to shop second-hand and vintage. Lovely blog!

xoxo,

colormenana.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Love what you're saying here, thank you.

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